Thursday, November 15, 2018

Remembering Stan Lee

Like most of us, I grew up hearing the voice of Stan Lee, usually associated with Marvel’s spate of Saturday morning cartoons in the 1990s (including the much beloved, and somewhat obscure “Pryde of the X-Men” standalone episode). And now, sadly, that voice is silenced.
Stan Lee died Monday at 95. I’m certainly not the only geek/nerd/aficionado to eulogize him this week, nor likely the most eloquent. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him, after all.
The battle for Lee’s cultural legacy began almost the instant the news of his passing hit the internet. Was he a bombastic, effusive creative genius, or did he play the comics industry’s self-aggrandizing Edison to Kirby and Ditko’s Tesla? That’s a debate for better (or worse) minds than mine. I only admired him from afar.
You absolutely couldn’t mistake Lee’s presence. He had a trademark look - mustache, big glasses, salt and pepper hair, and a constant, toothy grin - than transcended the eras and the changes in fashion. No matter the photo you see of him, no matter the decade, you know immediately that it’s Stan Lee.
What makes him important for me, I think, is this major point: Stan Lee made it OK to be a geek. In a culture now where “geek” is a term whose possession is fought over by all kinds of groups, and where so-called “geek culture” is ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when liking comic books, when talking about superheroes, was something for nerds and outcasts. It got you laughed at, not applauded. I remember those days vividly.
But Stan Lee was an adult who was out there, talking about comic books. He MADE comic books, created the heroes that we loved. Smiling, excited, bright-eyed behind the glasses, Lee personified the kind of ebullience we all felt inside about our nascent, hidden nerdy passions, but he had the courage to let it out. And so could we. Stan Lee made it OK to be a geek.
Without him, literally, the “geek industrial complex” that exists now would never have come into being. Unlike Scott McCloud, comics’ modern apologist, who has tried to argue why the medium should be looked at from an artistic perspective, Lee knew that comics and superheroes were fun. They were entertaining. And they were nothing to be ashamed of.
Stan Lee made it OK to be a geek.
So unfurl that geek flag, today, folks. Do something nerdy for ol’ Stan. It’s what he would have wanted.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

More Nonsense

Today in The Cube:

Here's this week's roundup of pop culture nonsense:

• The CBC’s “Schitt’s Creek” had its fourth season drop on Netflix, and my wife and I gobbled up its 12 episodes like fun-size Snickers. The show follows the Roses, a wealthy family of video store magnates who were robbed blind by their accountant and, with the government coming after them with a mighty tax bill they can’t pay, have to live in the one asset left them, the tiny rural village of Schitt’s Creek, which the family patriarch, played by Eugene Levy, bought his son, David (played by Levy’s son, and the series co-creator, Daniel Levy), as a joke.
This is one of the few newer scripted TV shows that I actually enjoy, and part of it is the writing. The characters have actual story arcs and true character development and growth. By the end of Season 4, the two Rose children, David and Alexis (Annie Murphy), hardly resemble the characters they were in the first season. The acting is also amazing, with Catherine O’Hara turning in performances as matriarch Moira Rose that are as filled with pathos as they are hilarious.
Something else that I enjoy is the fact that where most network sit-coms would take some of the plot complications “Schitt’s Creek” deals with and make them into entire, tiresome season-long themes, “Schitt’s Creek” just deals with them and moves on. Y’know, like real people do. Fantastic show.
• My wife and I have watched the first couple episodes of Amazon Prime’s much-hyped “The Romanoffs” and… it’s okay, I guess? It’s an anthology series, with one episode coming out every week, all loosely tied together by the fact that some of the characters claim some connection to that ill-fated Russian royal family. It’s created by the creator of “Mad Men,” and there are actors from that series who show up, but so far I haven’t seen anything that really keeps my particular attention. It’s well-shot, well-acted, with self-contained episodes that are about interpersonal human dramas of varying kinds. But, in all, it just feels very monotone.
• Netflix recently premiered the costuming for Henry Cavill’s character in the upcoming “The Witcher” series, complete with long whitish wig. Unfortunate comparisons to Legolas followed.
• Also announced lately was that the upcoming season of Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” will be its last. Which is perfectly fine with me, since the show hasn’t been up to its usual standard since Season 2. OITNB and “House of Cards” were Netflix’s headlining TV series, and with one sunsetting, and the other being heavily retooled after the Kevin Spacey scandal, it’ll be interesting to see where the service goes from here.
• The long-awaited sandbox cowboy video game epic Red Dead Redemption 2 premiered almost two weeks ago, and my twitter feed was divided into two groups: Those who were playing the game and those who weren’t playing the game and lamented that fact. I haven’t played a video game since about 2014, and only use my PS3 to play Blu-Rays so… that’s all I have to say about it. If you clicked on this article thinking you’d get a review of the game, you got punked.

• I’ve been a fan of spooky and true crime podcasts, my go-to being the powerhouse that is Last Podcast on the Left. However, by complete chance last week I saw a tweet mentioning a podcast called “Ghoul on Ghoul.” Hosted by Pittsburgh-area residents Sarah and Amanda, these ladies plumb the depths of the haunted, the weird and the outre with a characteristically wild sense of humor that’s genuinely hilarious. The first episode I happened to listen to was “Medieval Butt Science” and, believe me, it’s got me wanting to come back for more. A definite recommendation.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Halloween Wrap-Up!

Today in The Cube:

Well, as Charlie Brown once said, another Halloween has come and gone. Like many of you, I start my Spooky Season around July or August, with varying degrees of success.
While I don’t do Halloween as large as I know a lot of you do, there are certain traditions that I make sure I do every year: Watch the 1978 ‘Halloween,’; read or listen to ‘The Call of Cthulhu,’; carve a jack-o-lantern; watch ‘Return of the Living Dead’; and pass out candy to the trick-or-treaters.
I thought I’d do a wrap-up this year of some of the trends and tidings I saw during the 2018 season:

It was the grudge match of grudge matches in my neighborhood this season, between the folks who have Halloween Decorations and the folks who have Harvest Decorations. Halloween Decorations are, of course, the spooky stuff - jack-o-lanterns, skeletons, witches, you name it. Harvest is a bit more… agrarian. Pumpkins, gourds, cornstalks, hay bales, and frequently wreaths and, weirdly enough, big, artfully “distressed” wooden signs that say “Harvest!” or “Welcome Harvest!” or “It’s Harvest Time!” on them. Also, happy scarecrows. Lots of 'em.
Sure, you’ll find the odd house that sort of combines the two, likely so they can take down the spooky after the 31st and still keep the harvest up through Thanksgiving.
But by and large, either a house will be a Halloween House, or a Harvest House. And where I live, it’s about 50-50.
For the Halloween houses, the biggest trend in the neighborhood has been “hanging stuff from trees.” Most notably, the most popular of the hanging decorations have been these “wraith” decorations, consisting of a hooded skeleton head with a gauzy, cape-like body. Effective, to be sure, especially when you're walking your dog past the house at 5:30 in the morning.

For whatever reason, I found myself a little nostalgic for the “Clownpocalypse” hysteria that gripped the United States, and a few points international, during the fall of 2016. For those who don’t recall, starting in the south and expanding essentially to the entire United States, there were mushrooming reports of “creepy clowns” made to police and other law enforcement agencies. These clowns were reportedly doing everything form window peeping to chasing people around to perpetrating acts of violence. If you want a fuller reporting, MuckRock produced a fun article that compiles some of the more entertaining incidents reported to police during that time.
Even when it was happening (I was on the crime beat for the local paper at the time and covered a few clown sightings that were reported locally) folks were wondering what was behind it. Were the sightings real? Mass hysteria? Viral marketing for the new version of “IT” that was slated to hit theaters? Even today, we don’t have any answers. And the sightings abruptly stopped being reported after the 2016 election. So… who knows?

I got into listening to what I refer to as “zombie surf rock” this season - basically, think of the kind of instrumental rock that came out of California in the 1960s, mixed with The Monster Mash and the themes from The Addams Family and The Munsters, and you’ve pretty much got it. It’s campy, it’s fun, and it fits my mood for this time of year. I’m particularly interested in a group called “The Ghastly Ones.” Good stuff.

See You Next Week

Sunday, July 30, 2017

How Magic: The Gathering Lost its Magic for Me

Today in The Cube:

Please first of all understand I am no casual Magic: The Gathering fan.
I started playing in 2009 and was immediately hooked. I began amassing a collection that amounted to an estimated 20,000-plus cards. I played nearly every week, honing my skills at Standard, Modern and EDH. I completed viable Tron, WB Tokens, and BR 8Rack decks. I was a frequent quest on a popular Magic podcast, MTGYou. I played MODO for a while and was a constant card trader on Puca Trade and other services. When I could, I participated in pre-releases and other tournaments. I subscribed to monthly Magic mail-order services.
For the better part of a decade, Magic was my #1 hobby.
And then, it wasn’t.
Starting late last year, I began liquidating much of my collection, selling off my high-value cards, my bulk, keeping only about 10 percent of my collection.
Magic had just… lost its magic for me.
And here’s why:

1. Difficulty finding the time and the players.
In a job with an ever-shifting schedule, it’s hard to keep up a steady time to play, especially with increasing family demands on top of work. For a time I was able to play in the early afternoons, but my friend/opponent’s schedule changed and that scotched that opportunity after about a year or so. Those factors also generally preclude me from playing at pre-releases and FNMs.
Additionally, beyond organizing your cards and building a deck, there’s little that you can really do with Magic in a hobby sense when you’re not actually playing the game. And you can only re-organize your cards so often.

2. The Money Game.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, let me break it down for you: Magic is expensive. The game thrives on an ever-shifting Standard metagame, which requires players to keep buying packs and boxes of the cards “in rotation.” I would generally buy a new or “repack” box of a set once it came out, but at roughly $100 a pop, that’s a lot of money to shell out each year for pieces of pretty cardboard. And if you want to play Modern, those decks can easily run into the hundreds of dollars even for a low-level deck.
I’ve also long been discouraged by the focus on “value” in Magic. Too, too many players look at their cards like others look at stocks and commodities: as pieces of property that can be held to gain in value so they can either trade them or, more likely, sell them off at a later date. Card prices fluctuate wildly based on many factors, not least of which is whether a card does well in tournaments, which are increasingly streamed online.
Whether Wizards of the Coast likes to admit it or not, part of the driving popularity of Magic for many players is the prospect of opening a pack and getting a high-value card. The fact that more and more varieties of ultra-rare special cards are finding their way into sets seems to prove my point for me.

3. Competition.
The focus of Magic should be fun, but too often, it’s not. I’ve discussed this both on this blog and also on the digital airwaves, but the focus on “competition” in Magic, I feel, is largely responsible for a number of the ills people have complained about in the game’s culture (which I’ll get to below). The game’s chief cheerleader, Mark Rosewater, long ago defined three types of players: Timmy, who plays the game more for its aesthetic appeal; Johnny, who adds to that an interest in healthy competition; and Spike, the player with the killer instinct.
Too often, the game seems to attract “Spikes” into the ranks of players. Again, whether WotC will admit it or not, the game’s tenets tacitly take aim at players with the hope of becoming “power players”: if you have the right cards, and the right deck, you can rule your local scene. Maybe get into a PTQ. Maybe go on the Pro Tour.
I’ll admit I was caught up in the kind of thought. That’s what drew me into Modern, into the competitive play of that bouncing format. Until I realized I was building decks, full of expensive cards, that I’d likely only use a couple times a year, if that, in actual competitive play. I felt like a chump. And it’s difficult to keep up with the shifting metagame of any format - new deck lists, new strategies, new articles, are all continually being churned out by the Magic-industrial complex to keep players hungry for the next leg-up on their opponents.

4. Cultural Toxicity.
The competition I talked about above seems to bring a certain type of player into the scene. Magic has drawn criticism in recent years for being surrounded by a toxic gaming culture. How female players are treated; the infamous “crackgate” incident, which drew some mainstream media attention; and a number of high-profile cheating scandals have combined to make it seem to some that the game’s social aspect is broken.
I’ve encountered this aggressive Magic “bro-culture” on a number of occasions, and it’s one reason I don’t enjoy playing in tournaments. I always try to be courteous and engender a sense of collegiality when I play, so I dislike it intensely when, for instance, a player says not a word to me, proceeds to beat me soundly in three straight games, and then after a perfunctory “good game” walks off; when, after you win a match, your opponent, who’s been snickering with his friend the whole time you’ve played, acts as though you had no business even playing against him anyway (let alone beating him), picks up his deck, and leaves; or, when, after being beaten, my opponent decides to outline for me point by point all the mistakes I made. This kind of aggressive “Alpha”-type player isn’t a great ambassador for the game and, unfortunately, is one reason why Magic has the reputation it does in some quarters.
I still love Magic. I still get together with a group of my friends every once in a while and play EDH. And, to be totally honest, the positive interactions I’ve had resulting from this game outnumber the bad. But for the reasons outlined above, I had to step back. Step away. Put the value of my cards, my time, and my energy, to better use.

I had to find the magic somewhere else.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Great Movie Ride: An Appreciation

Today in The Cube:

In the wake of the recent Disney Expo, it's being widely reported that The Mouse plans on closing the iconic Great Movie Ride, long a staple at Walt Disney World Resort's Hollywood Studios park, this August.

Honestly, I've got mixed feelings about it. I'll come right out and say I'm a big Disney fan, and I renewed my love of the parks four years ago when my wife and I took our honeymoon in Orlando. In the entertainment world, I get the fact that things need to change as audiences change. The Great Movie Ride, as I've heard, hasn't been getting the attendance it has in decades past, and that's a lot of real estate to just not be used to its potential. The reports are that Disney plans to build a new Mickey & Minnie-themed ride in its place that is to be state-of-the-art.

On the other hand, Disney and Hollywood Studios (which was originally called MGM Studios - and that's how I'll always think of it) hold a special place in my childhood memory.

I first rode on The Great Movie Ride in the early 1990s, not long after park originally opened in 1989. It was my second-ever trip to Disney, and my brothers and I, already movie geeks, were also toy geeks. We read all the toy collecting magazines and through them came to be aware of the Alien series of films. One of the major segments of GMR (I'll abbreviate the name of the ride from here on out) of course features Sigourney Weaver's Ripley being menaced by H. R. Geiger's xenomorphs. The creatures appear twice in the ride, wreathed in steam. I read all about that part of the ride, and I loved it when it came - though I was creeped out also, and hid my eyes initially.

The entrance to the ride is a fantastic recreation of the Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, and once you're inside you're led past well-known parts of film history, and even through a room playing trailers of the films featured in the ride.

The ride itself is basically a tour of a number of vignettes and tableaux depicting well-known scenes from movies. The cars are kind of big and futuristic-looking and you're accompanied by a tour "guide" who goes along with you and narrates what's going on in each scene.

And there are plenty of scenes - audio-animatronic recreation of a lot of classic actors are there, from Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain" to John Wayne in "Red River," James Cagney, Wizard of Oz (the recreation of Munchkin Land is enormous and epic-looking), Mary Poppins, Tarzan and Jane, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Casablanca (on the backlot tour ride at Hollywood Studios, they used to tell riders that the plane used in the GMR vignette is the real one from the film), and others.

At some point in your tour, your guide would be hijacked, either by a gangster in the Cagney area, or a bank robber in the John Wayne area, and they'd take you for a while until they met an untimely end trying to steal a bauble from an idol near the Raiders of the Lost Ark area.

My favorite part of the ride comes next: Your tram travels into a tomb-like throne room, and there, in ruined splendor, is an Egyptian Pharaoh, his family and retinue, desiccated but still on their thrones. The scene is wonderfully atmospheric and feels like something that should have been in an Indiana Jones movie.

At the end, the tram takes you into a large room where you watch a montage of great film clips.

For all of that, the ride, while big on visual splendor, is short on other things. As a kid I remember the thrill of waiting for the alien, but as an adult, I found it lacking. I'm a big film buff, and it was neat to see great scenes recreated in real life, but something just seemed off about it. The big fire that takes place in the cowboy room, and the gunfight in the gangster area, felt lifted from Pirates of the Caribbean. The "tour guides" seemed hokey. And the Wicked Witch of the West - at the time of her premier, dubbed the most advanced animatronic Disney had created - just didn't "wow" me.

We were able to get on the ride after 10 minutes in line on our most recent, but when I got off, I wished I hadn't gotten on. Riding again did refresh my memory of things I'd forgotten about the ride in the intervening decades since I'd ridden it, but it also showed me that the wonder I'd had as a kid just wasn't there anymore at that ride I'd once been so excited for.

Next time I'm in Disney, it'll be sad to see it's not there anymore. I wonder if they'll keep the facade of the theatre to maintain the Hollywood backlot theme of the park.

But next time I'm down there, my kids will be a bit older, and I'll bet they'll love to ride that new Mickey ride they have planned.

So will I.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

My Journey to Mordheim – Part 1

Today in The Cube:

Howdy folks and welcome back - hope you've had a nice holiday!

Anybody who happens to follow me on social media is probably familiar with the fact that I'm very interested in he old Games Workshop boardgame/wargame known as Mordheim. I'll not go into the rules or even the canonical history of the game - there are many others who could do better justice to it on that score - but the game has fascinated me enough to the point that I've really started devoting much of my hobby time to my own conception of the game. (For instance, check out the #mordheim2016 hashtag on Instagram to see the progress of a Mordheim game board project that took up 6 months of my time this year.) This, strangely, despite the fact that I've actually never even played a game of it.

I have, however, been captivated by the ethos and aesthetics of the game, set in a moribund city decimated by a meteor and crawling with all kinds of factions vying for supremacy. It's a skirmish game, for small groups of characters to battle, largely in a setting the size of a small neighborhood.

If you google "mordheim board" and look at the images that result, you'll see one of the reasons I'm captivated by how this game looks. Set in a world that looks like high-Medieval or early-Renaissance Europe, it's redolent of mud, plague, and hardscarbble characters. There's a mix of technologies, everything from your standard swords, warhammers and other implements of battle, to matchlock rifles, pistols, and cannon.

I've always liked the aesthetic of World War I - gray skies, mud, trenches, muck, bombed-out buildings, and so on. Mordheim has this in spades. You're playing in a ruined city, with characters cut out of the pages of a novel by Dumas or a woodcut by Durer or a painting by Pieter Brueghel. There's a strong sense of horror and the macabre in the game. Check out fan-driven miniature projects like Outgard, or the popularity of Frostgrave (a clear Mordheim imitator) and you can see these aspects reflected in them.

Now, I'd never heard of Mordheim until a few years back. A friend – the same one who introduced me to D&D about a decade ago – mentioned he'd played it, showed me a picture of one of the half-timbered houses he'd built, and provided me with a copy of the rules. I was hooked by the ambiance the game afforded, by how it looked and felt and even seemed to smell and feel to my mind's-eye.

I'm currently cobbling together a Mordheim-type project of my own, and I'm excited to share it with you. I'm planning a series of posts on this very subject, of which this is the first.

Please join me on My Journey to Mordheim. It's bound to be interesting...

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

REVIEW: Fireteam Zero

Today in the Cube:

I've finally been able to get in a couple plays of (for me) the most long-awaited game of last year, Fireteam Zero, a tactical miniatures game published by Emergent Games and Play & Win.

The Fireteam Zero box is HUGE. It may be the largest
board game box I've ever seen.

Now, before I start, in the interest of full disclosure: I've been a longtime supporter of this game and backed it at the highest level on Kickstarter, something I rarely do. Suffice it to say: even before this game was actually in my hot little hands, I was a big fan.

Here's the premise: It's 1942. Four men are chosen to form an elite team, Fireteam Zero, to hunt down and destroy supernatural artifacts that have awakened and begun asserting their eldritch power during World War II. What's fun about this is, unlike comics like Arrowsmith, Hellboy, or games like Dust Tactics or Konflict '47 that have a "Weird War" theme, in which there are special magics, powers or technologies used by either side to fight, in this game it's truly "Man Against Horror."

This co-op game features a series of 9 missions, each involving one of three different monstrous "Families" based on the particular artifact that spawned them: everything from horrible Sandworm-like parasites (The Infested)  to burning skeletons (The Fetch) to chest-bursting frog-spider-crabs (The Children of Typhon).  The monsters come in three flavors: Minion, Elite, and Boss. Even the Minions are no joke. The Fireteam Zero boys have to complete objectives while fighting these monsters in each mission and, once the objectives are met, they all have to reach the Exit Point alive.

Helping Fireteam Zero are some Specialists – scientists and folklorists who advise them in the field. These guys bring added benefits when they're with the characters. However, they always have to be guarded - you can't ever leave them unprotected.

The gameplay, I thought, was pretty elegant. There are four character roles: Leader (which is an all-around balanced role); Close Combat (expert with close range fighting); Marksman (long-range fighting); and Demolitions (making things go "boom"). Each role has a deck of action cards associated with it. You draw a hand of 5 cards and, on your turn can perform a move and an action (you can play any number of action cards so long as they share a damage type: Brawl, Bullet or Bomb).
Some of the boards, cards, dice and other components in
the game. It's really pretty beautiful once you get it on the table.

The thing is, your hand of cards is ALSO your hit point total. When a monster attacks you and does damage, you have to discard a number of cards equal to the points of damage. If the amount of damage exceeds the cards in hand, you're "knocked down," and a special "Lucky Coin" in the game is turned from Heads to Tails. While there are some mechanics (few and far between, however) that can put that coin back to Heads, and you can get back up and come back at full strength the next turn, if another hero is knocked down while that coin is on Tails, you lose. Period. Once that coin is flipped, I always get anxious.

As a result, resource management is paramount: the cards you play, how many you play, and when you play them, all have to be taken into consideration.

Making things even tougher, of course, in addition to the eternally-spawning monsters, is the fact that there is a "Twist Track" that increases the difficulty. Each round, on the monsters' turn, the track is advanced and every few turns you put a new card from the "Twist Deck" on the track. These cards can have effects like preventing heroes from fleeing monsters in their spaces, or reducing the maximum hand size.

So the name of the game, quite honestly, is being careful, cautious, and working together.

The components are impressive. Each mission is played on a series of 4 boards that are each about 12 inches square, and represent a location in the game, from caves to forests to a ruined village and beyond. There are 8 double-sided boards in all included in the core set. The boards are full color and made of sturdy cardboard, matching the quality of the best that companies like Fantasy Flight have to offer. There are also a number of counters made of the same durable material.

The real stars of the game, though, are the miniatures. There are 46 miniatures in all, including 3 big bosses (everything is on 28mm "Heroic" miniature scale, so these minis would likely fit in well with your favorite wargame if you wanted to include them. I plan to do so...), 5 heroes and 2 specialists. (While there are 4 character roles, the 5th hero is a female "Agent Carter" type, who can be used as a Leader).

The minis are beautiful, cast in durable plastic and really nicely detailed. While I think the monster miniatures are awesome, my favorite of all of the figures is Rat, the close combat specialist, who wears a hooded trench coat, backpack, and gas mask, and holds two knives, ready for action. It's a particularly well-sculpted mini, and one that I can't wait to paint up.
Missions can get pretty hairy in a hurry. My munitions expert
was no match for three foes at once and got knocked down.

How does it work? I think the mechanics mesh very well. Each hero has a particular kind of damage they deal, and a number of dice per attack. The amount of their particular damage type that comes up during the roll (Bullets, Fists, Bombs) equals the number of hits on an enemy. Movement is simple — each hero moves two spaces per turn, unless an action allows something different. Monsters work on similar principles, though their attacks and movement are somewhat different.

That's the interesting thing about the balance of Fireteam Zero: this is not a game, like HeroScape or others, where the fight is in the favor of the attacker at all times. Each card play is a major decision; the wrong one played at the wrong time (or the right one played too soon) can have major consequences and even cost you the game. It's the heroes who are continually in peril; the monsters aren't easy, and it's a pretty good bet that if two or three of them gang up on one hero, they're going to be knocked down, amping up the stress level for the rest of the game. And that's what truly makes this a "horror" game — while the setting and theme are inherently spooky, the pervasive sense of peril actually will give you a shiver when you play this.

Now, while I'm in love with this game, I do have some criticisms. Some have said the gameplay is somewhat repetitive, and it's true: players can only really attack or search on their turns. However, there are expansions coming out that will permit things like customization of characters with gear and hopefully that might alleviate some of those issues. There are also, unfortunately some typos in the text (notably the Mission Briefing book), but that's really a minor issue.

If you're interested in a fun adventure game that really lives up to the horror theme (and has super cool miniatures) give Fireteam Zero a shot!